Charter schools present the most controversial and divisive issue I’ve encountered in 36 years of education reporting.
Supporters passionately defend charters, and opponents fiercely attack them, leaving little room for rational consideration of their merits and shortcomings, and what role they might best play in a school district’s game plan.
In this issue, we hope to bring some measure of clarity to the debate by illuminating the issues through the experiences of one charter network and school communities that have rallied to compete against charters.
We chose the Noble Network of Charter Schools because it stands out in several ways: In the past decade, it has aggressively expanded and now enrolls 11,000 students on 16 campuses, with a 17th due to open this fall. Noble schools have routinely ranked among Chicago’s top non-selective high schools on state tests and the ACT. And the portion of its graduates who enroll in college is far larger than the district’s as a whole.
At the same time, Noble also has stirred some of the most heated controversies among charters, initially for fining students who break its rules and more recently for seeking expansion sites where neighborhood-school supporters fear a Noble presence would undermine their own improvement efforts.
Given this track record, we wanted to find out what makes Noble tick and how it might be changing as it adds campuses in more impoverished sections of the city. So in November, associate editors Melissa Sanchez and Kalyn Belsha knocked on Noble’s door, and the network, in contrast to Chicago Public Schools, flung it wide open, providing ready access to its classrooms, personnel and data. What emerged was a picture with strong contrasts.
For example, Noble teachers have the freedom to decide what and how they teach, and they love that. But some chafe under the rule of test scores and a strict student discipline policy.
Principals get to decide their school’s curricular focus, leading to a mix that ranges from an emphasis on social justice to one modeled after an East Coast private school that teaches through student-directed discussions.
Kalyn also interviewed principals, parents and politicians who are working to improve their neighborhood high schools and have tried, with mixed results, to keep Noble from opening a school nearby.
For decades, large numbers of Chicago high school students have raced from their neighborhood to enroll elsewhere. In our December 2001 issue of Catalyst In Depth we reported that 55 percent had done so.
The most recent number is 73 percent, according to research by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, which also found a clear pattern of students moving from a low-ranked school to a higher-ranked school. A large majority enrolled in a district-run school.
Yet these numbers should not blind school system leaders to the potential of neighborhood schools. Efforts to increase their enrollment should be supported, as a strong school-community connection can pay big dividends, from extra resources for the school to higher property values.
Even the middle-class and upper middle-class families for whom selective-enrollment schools were created have come to see a good neighborhood school as a valuable community asset — and highly preferable to the time and anxiety associated with applying to selective-enrollment and magnet schools.
At the other end of the wealth spectrum, some communities have been so ravaged by poverty that their schools need more than community partners.
Take, for example, Tilden Career Community Academy in Canaryville. The school has highly regarded partners, including some who work with students on emotional issues. But the principal, Maurice Swinney, says that what it most needs is permanent staff to do that work.
“I’d rather you just give us the funding to buy the clinicians who can be in the building and work with students daily and help kids unravel deep issues,” he says. “We can’t continue down this road and expect neighborhood schools to change over time.”
Noble clearly has served many Chicago students well in its mission to enroll all its graduates in college and see them obtain degrees — though not all students would fit its mold. And it’s not the network’s job to look out for district-run schools whose enrollment might be jeopardized by the arrival of new schools.
It’s the Board of Education’s job to think through the implications of school placement decisions for all types of schools. A truly responsible board would develop a plan that embraces the whole city.
As Catalyst goes to press, charter schools have emerged in teacher contract talks. In a surprise move, the School Board offered to halt charter expansion for the life of the contract. With that, the Board may have been doing itself, not just the union, a favor, as a pause would give it time to figure out how its various high school models can work together.